President Bush yesterday ordered U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf area increased by about 200,000, a massive new deployment he said would ensure that an "offensive military option" is available against Iraq if he needs it.
The increase would raise the total U.S. force in the region to about 430,000. The additional deployments include three aircraft carrier groups and a battleship, half of the tank divisions now in Europe and one from the United States, plus about 45,000 Marines and 20,000 naval personnel. The additional ground forces announced yesterday could add up to 150,000 military personnel. Also called up for training yesterday were about 12,000 Army National Guard members, who would not be sent to the gulf unless senior military leaders are certain of their combat readiness.
The order and the president's first public acknowledgment of an offensive role for U.S. troops represent a significant new phase in the three-month-old gulf crisis.
When the original deployments were announced Aug. 6, the administration described the mission as defensive, guarding Saudi Arabia against a possible Iraqi invasion from occupied Kuwait. Bush said yesterday that the forces now deployed can fulfill the defensive mission.
Bush, in making the announcement with Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney at his side, brushed aside a question of whether the United States was going to war, saying, "I would love to see a peaceful resolution to this question."
But he said Iraqi President Saddam Hussein should withdraw from Kuwait without condition, and he and Cheney refused to rule out further increases in troop strength. If yesterday's announcement "convinces him, so much the better," Bush said.
Because the deployments cannot be completed for at least two months, their practical effect could be to give the U.N. economic sanctions against Iraq additional time to work. Asked about statements by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak that the sanctions should be given two to three more months, Bush said, "We are in total synch with him."
The president cited no changes in the situation in the gulf as necessitating such a major new force increase. A senior official said the failure of the sanctions and the military presence to budge Saddam convinced Bush "several weeks ago" that "a more significant military operation" was needed.
Four times during the news conference Bush made the point that the additional military power was meant to signal U.S. resolve to Saddam and persuade him to leave Kuwait.
"I think it sends a very, strong signal, another strong signal, to Saddam Hussein that we are very, very serious about . . . seeing the United Nations resolutions complied to in their entirety without any kind of watering down," Bush said.
Later, he added, "I hope he is rethinking his position of unyielding opposition to the will of the rest of the world and I would think that when he surveys the force that's there, this force that's going . . . he will recognize that he is up against a foe that he can't possibily manage militarily."
The president made the formal decision to approve the new forces more than two weeks ago, an official said, but delayed the announcement until after the election to avoid charges he was entangling gulf policy in domestic politics. Over that period, Cheney and others have suggested strongly that additional deployments were imminent.
Bush said the United States "has the authority" to take offensive action without further U.N. authorization. But he expressed a preference for the organization's support to retain the backing of the international community. "I think one of the major successes has been the ability to have world opinion totally on our side because of the U.N. action," he said.
Bush's news conference was delayed three times as he waited to hear from Secretary of State James A. Baker III, who was in Moscow amid consultations on the gulf with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze. Bush said Baker told him the United States and Soviet Union "were together" on gulf policy and that "We're on the same wavelength in terms of objectives" but added, "I can't go with you into what the Soviet position will be on the use of force."
The president said no member of the U.N. Security Council had informed the United States it would oppose a resolution authorizing force to back up the sanctions and other goals outlined in 10 previously approved U.N. resolutions. But he said the government has not yet formally polled U.N. members and he would not discuss a timetable for seeking such a resolution.
The president yesterday avoided the charged rhetoric about the gulf he used in political campaign speeches over the past 10 days. In campaign trail comments, Bush compared Saddam to Adolf Hitler, at one point said the Iraqi leader was worse than Hitler, and repeatedly expressed outrage about the Americans held hostage in Iraq and Kuwait.
Bush reiterated his concern about the Americans in the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait and about the conditions there, noting it was "unconscionable to try to starve people out and to isolate them from food and supplies of all kinds." But he said they can go on "a few weeks" more and said it would be "unproductive" to discuss whether he planned to try to resupply the embassy when food and water runs out.
Bush came to the news conference from a meeting with five U.S. Jewish leaders where the gulf and Israel's role there was discussed, participants said. Those leaders urged him not to let others use the conflict to "drive a wedge between the United States and Israel," according to Seymour Reich, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
When asked about U.S. consultations with Israel on coordinated military action in the event of war, the president would not discuss details. But he seemed to step further forward than officials have previously gone in acknowledging Israel's special relationship with the United States and consultations on this issue. "I think the whole world knows that the United States has a very special relationship with Israel," he said, "I think we are in close touch with the key players there in terms of our objectives."
The United States has been reluctant to acknowledge its consultations with Israel in preparing for possible military action for fear of undermining efforts to maintain a strong Arab coalition against Saddam. Any public discussion of the level and type of shared intelligence and the role of the Israeli military in case of war has been shunned by the administration.
Earlier yesterday, Bush had lunch with a handful of outside advisers and friends. According to one of the group, he acknowledged that his own advisers had told him he had not been making an adequate case to justify the U.S. presence in the gulf, nor been keeping the crisis in the public mind. With the elections over, one adviser said, the "re-education" of the nation "on what is at stake in the gulf will be at the top of the president's agenda."
The announcement comes at a time when the president is facing increasing protests about the gulf crisis as he travels across the nation.
As he visited eight states in the past week campaigning for GOP candidates, virtually every stop featured anti-war demonstrators and signs. The groups, mostly standing silently along motorcade routes and at the entrances to speech sites, have questioned Bush's refusal to negotiate, suggested the United States may be entering a Vietnam-like prolonged conflict, and may be more concerned about oil prices than loss of life.
Hecklers interrupted at least three Bush speeches briefly in the past week to shout, "No war for oil," and Bush has answered that oil is not the reason for the gulf crisis. But for the first time in his presidency, Bush has protesters -- sometimes only two or three, sometimes a hundred or more -- nearly everywhere he goes.